Still appreciating “Fame” – 25 Years Later

Fame (based on the 1980 feature film)  debuted as a TV show in January ’82 . For a year and a half it aired at 8p Thu on (then) low rated, NBC. This was a couple of years before The Cosby Show inhabited that timeslot and in turn changed the course of NBC Thursdays and most importantly, NBC as a network, for many years to come. It was greeted with rave reviews and it kicked off a lineup that followed with Cheers, Taxi (on its last legs having been picked up for a final Season by NBC after years on ABC) and Hill Street Blues. It was a low rated lineup but a critically acclaimed one. I remember full ad pages in the New York Times with the logos of all 4 shows and the brilliant tag line that said “The Best Night Of Television ON Television”. It was early in the life of Brandon Tartikoff’s very successful reign at NBC and he is often quoted as having said “First be the best, then be first”. With this lineup and his commitment to quality TV you can see those weren’t hollow words.

Sadly, Fame only lasted a season and a half on NBC as its ratings never blossomed enough for them to keep it. However, as was sometimes common in the 80s, many canceled network shows got a chance for a second life in First Run Syndication (other examples: Charles in Charge, 9 To 5). Local independent stations would buy the show and air it on weekends. In NYC, I watched it on Sunday afternoons at 5pm first on channel 5 (which was soon to be Fox affiliate WNYW) and later on Tribune’s WPIX/Channel 11. It aired for another 4 seasons though May of ’87.

Recently through channel flipping, I came across a cable network named Ovation which has been running reruns of Fame, all the time. Ovation seems to actually be what you would call and an Arts & Entertainment network (you know what Bravo used to be before they decided to be a channel full of fame whores). They will soon begin airing reruns of So You Think You Can Dance and all through the month of July they have been airing documentaries on successful contributers to pop music like Eminem, Beyonce etc. Fame is a perfect fit on this kind of network and these last few weeks I have watched many episodes. Some I remember quite clearly and some are almost new to me. (I am much better versed in the last few seasons).

I was struck by a couple of things:

1) How well the series holds up. The thing is –  music and dance and actual talent (which this series possessed in a major way) never goes out of style.

2) How well the series adjusted to cast comings and goings. The show’s “main” kids in the first 2 seasons: Bruno, Coco, Doris all left by seasons 3 and 4. Only Leroy (played by Gene Anthony Ray) and Danny (Carlo Imperato) lasted all 6 seasons (and honestly how was Danny still a student by the end? Bruno even makes a crack about it in the final episode as he and many other alumni returned). The quality remained though all 6 seasons.

What was what was really special about Fame was that in addition to singing there was much attention given to other performing arts: Dance, Composing etc. After all, the show was depicting life at the actual NY School of Performing Arts. In addition, Debbie Allen portrayed Dance teacher Lydia Grant and was an actual Choreographer and choreographed many sequences on the show. Albert Hague who played music teacher Benjamin Shorofsky was an actual composer. His bond with Bruno and in final season punk rocker, Ian Whare (played by Broadway vet and current Fringe star Michael Cerveris , when he had hair 🙂 ) felt like authentic teacher/protégé bonds. Simiarly, Lydia and Leroy had a similar bond.

It’s great to see the arts portrayed and celebrated on TV again on scripted shows like Glee, but Fame was really special in that they weren’t just doing songs that were currently on the charts. There were concertos performed, ballet and other dance performances. There was a mix of songs on the show each week, some that were from broadway shows the kids were performing that week, some that were pop hits but many were songs we had never heard before. Check out this scene from the final season in 1986 with Loretta Chandler (as Dusty) performing “Don’t Turn Around”,  a Diane Warren composition that became an Ace Of Base hit 8 years later –  in 1994. This version was so implanted in my head that when the Ace of Base song was released, I thought “Hey I remember Dusty singing this”.

The show touched many real life issues. I remember the episode in the final season when the character of Nicole (played by Nia Peeples) was shockingly killed, and the show wrote a moving episode that also touched on the dangers of drinking and driving. For a 16 year old watching this, it really touched a nerve, and I still remember the episode well all these years later. Here’s the first act.

In Season 4 a young lady named Janet Jackson joined the cast only for one season as the following year her monster hit album Control was released and the rest, as they say, is history.

The cast toured all over the world. Many of those tours were turned into episodes of the show. The show also made great use of New York fiming great sequences on the street.

There was a great episode from season 2 where famed composer Tom Sullivan (who happens to be blind) played a blind substitute teacher. Here is the denouement of that ep where he dances with Debbie Allen.

Here’s a great showcase for Erica Gimpel who played Coco (same character played by Irene Cara in the movie) through season 3:

Finally here’s the series finale from 1987 where former cast members returned and the entire cast performs the title song together It’s kicked off by the 2 actresses that sang the TV theme –  Erica Gimpel and Loretta Chandler.

It’s strange to me how out of a show with so many talented people, only a few still seem to be acting. Obviously Debbie Allen is still a very active and successful choreogrpaher (still appearing on So You Think You Can Dance) and very successful director. Just this past season she directed a number of eps of Grey’s. (She directed a number of Fame episodes as well). Nia Peeples is still acting, currently recurring on Pretty Little Liars and Jesse Borrego and Cynthia Gibb do the occasional guest starring on a procedural and Hallmark film, but I don’t see most of cast acting much anymore. A shame.

This past development season ABC had a drama in contention called Grace. I was looking forward to it as it was created by Krista Vernoff, one of the best writers on Grey’s. But also, it was set in the world of dance and was co produced by Carrie Ann Inaba and the dance sequences were choreographed by Mia Michaels. It sounded like something really fresh for TV. –  A family drama set in the world of dance with Eric Roberts in the lead and with another leading role from Abigail Spencer who is just the right role away from breaking out. An added treat was Debbie Allen in a recurring role. The buzz was that the dance sequences outshone the actual show. Who knows what’s true and why a show doesn’t make it past the pilot stage. But after watching old episodes of Fame all this Summer I can honestly say I’m a little bummed Grace wasn’t greenlit to series. It might have been a great companion to DWTS. I hope they attempt to try again.

NBC has a new musical drama coming midseason called Smash and unlike Glee,  the show will feature all original music from acclaimed  Broadway composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The show depicts the making of a fictional musical and the pilot was a lot of fun.  So that’s something in the “Fame” vein to look forward to.

If you have never seen Fame, or like myself, you were a fan, I suggest finding Ovation on your cable system. The show more than holds up.

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